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New Commission chair must stop charities ‘hunting for divisions’, Oliver Dowden says 

13 Sep 2021 News

Oliver Dowden, culture secretary

The new chair of the Charity Commission must use their position to “restore charities’ focus to their central purpose”, the culture secretary said over the weekend. 

Oliver Dowden, who is responsible for selecting the new chair, wrote an article for the Telegraph outlining fears about some charities “hunting for divisions in a way that serves neither their benefactors nor the country”. 

He also sent a message to charities about making sure funding delivers “real impact” and said they should not become overly reliant on government grants. 

Interviews for the new chair are expected to begin this week, after being delayed. The term of the interim chair, Ian Karet, has been extended to enable to the process to be completed.  

‘Worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority’ 

Dowden highlighted the important role charities played during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been hard on charities,” he wrote. “But in many cases the third sector managed to continually sustain and support others during an incredibly challenging time. This is to be commended and encouraged.” 

Nonetheless, Dowden said he was concerned about some charities’ behaviour, and said there is “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”.

He is worried that this means “they not only distract charities from their core missions but also waste large amounts of time and money”.

He gave two examples. The first was the Churchill Fellowship’s recent rebrand, where the charity needed to clarify that it was not trying to distance itself from Sir Winston Churchill. The second was the debate surrounding the statue of Guy’s and St Thomas’ founder. 

Dowden’s article did not mention three recent cases where charities have been criticised by Conservative MPs over their public statements, only for the Commission to clear them of wrongdoing. 

The National Trust had been criticised for a report about the charity’s links to colonialism and slavery. Barnardo’s came under fire over a blog explaining white privilege. The Runnymede Trust was accused of being too political in its response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. 

In each case the Commission has concluded the charity had acted within its objectives. 

Charities should ‘refocus their efforts on public giving’ 

Dowden highlighted the £750m support that the government provided to the sector during the pandemic, but said the regulator, and sector, must now focus on finding sustainable income streams. 

“The new Charity Commission chair will need to ensure these organisations are on a sustainable financial footing,” he said. “The government is rightly supporting charities, but rather than a developing reliance on government grants in the years to come, they should refocus their efforts on public giving.” 

He also emphasised that charities are accountable to a “wider group to which they owe their existence”. 

He explained: “The taxpayer has made no demands of those in receipt of these lifelines but those who have accessed this funding must pay due consideration to the wider constituency that now has a stake in their work.

“We do our bit when we donate to charities; they must do theirs by ensuring that every penny is spent on real impact.”

Delays to recruiting a new chair 

In February, Ian Karet was appointed as the interim chair of the Charity Commission for six months while a permanent person was recruited. 

However, that process has not finished, with interviews taking place this week, so his appointment has been extended until the end of the year. 

Karet, who is a part-time deputy High Court judge, said: “I’m pleased to continue in this role, providing continuity while a new chair is appointed.”

The job was advertised in March and final interviews should have been held in the spring, ready for someone to take over in the summer. 

There have been a number of delays to public appointments, including the role at the charity regulator, in recent months. This prompted Peter Riddell, public appointments commissioner, to set out concerns about delays in a letter to Michael Gove, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Riddell said: “Vague explanations have been given, when pressed, about why this competition [for the chair of the Charity Commission] has not completed as planned.” 

Interviews will be carried out by a panel, which will make a recommendation to Dowden who formally names a candidate. The candidate would then be required to attend a pre-appointment hearing at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee before the appointment is confirmed.

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